Adam Immerwahr has directed Shakespearean theater. He has worked with the Public Theater in New York, currently serves as the associate producer at McCarter Theater, and as the resident director of Passage Theater in Trenton.
But nothing, he says, has given him more satisfaction than working with the 13 men and women aged from 60 to close to 90 who make up the troupe of CWW On Stage, a Princeton-based ensemble of senior community players whose monologues and skits stem from material based on local lives and oral histories.
The CWW part refers to the group’s sponsor, Community Without Walls, a Princeton-based association of individuals and couples that seeks ways to “enhance the ability of its members to age well, to assist its members in acquiring the knowledge that will enable them to make the choices that they will need as they age.” Support has also come from Secure @Home, an arm of Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Greater Mercer County, which provides services for seniors who wish to remain in their own homes for as long as possible.
“To watch a bunch of retired people creating work, learning lines, learning new theater skills, learning how to use their bodies and voices and imaginations in new ways — that is healthy aging,” says Immerwahr.
Fran Benson, a Princeton resident, is one of the founders of the group. She got the idea after taking some classes at Stage Bridge in Berkeley, CA, now in its 30th year as a senior theater company. “When I came back here in January, 2008,” she says, “I got in touch with Rob Hutter, who was running a theater group out of Temple University. He came up and did a workshop and an eight-week class in the spring of 2008. That was an expensive proposition, paying Rob’s travel expenses, and having him schlep all the way up here. So we looked around, and our second director, Susan Garrett, worked with us for a year, during which we really began to find our form, which was collecting stories.”
The group’s first presentation was titled, appropriately, “First Jobs.” The members interviewed each other and outsiders to come up with material that was at times funny, sad, and moving, and that audiences easily related to. After all, who hasn’t had the first job jitters or that memorable first job boss? CWW On Stage felt like they were on to something.
When Garrett moved to Maine, and they needed a new director Benson. called Lisa Patterson at McCarter. “She said she would ask Adam if he knew anyone,” says benson, “and he said, ‘I am.’ That was a wonderful moment.”
Says Immerwahr: “We had a series of meetings to find out if it was a good fit. I came in, and we started immediately developing our next piece ‘Thriving, Not Just Surviving,’ which is a piece about healthy aging. We don’t perform exclusively for seniors, but they make up a large part of our audience. This is a version of aging that perhaps you haven’t seen. There are so many set ideas we have about how we look at seniors in our culture. I think our mission is to collect and perform stories of our community. There’s something important about what do we do that’s different than other theaters. There’s something very beautiful about watching people performing, word for word, stories that were gathered.
“We divide our year into three segments. One segment is training, where we spend all of our rehearsal time working on acting techniques and tools that an actor might need. Another third of our year is spent on the creation of our new piece. We do a series of exercises to elicit stories from within the group, we go outside and conduct interviews, and we brainstorm and improv and try to create text for the piece. And then about a third of our year is spent in rehearsal — we have our piece, and now we’re trying to put it together. So while none of these people are professional actors, they are going through an extensive training process.
“This year we gathered a piece, ‘About Family,’ which we are rehearsing now and are going to perform shortly. We are looking at the family through a multi-faceted prism, through the lens of someone who has adopted a child, through a same-sex couple, through someone who lives in a neighborhood that a lot of people think of as a family — but she doesn’t. We have a story from someone who is part of a group and is taking care of an invalid who has in some ways become a family.
‘The show has 13 monologues, six scenes, incorporating every actor. At any given performance we might not be doing all monologues or all six scenes. It’s a very wide range of ways of looking at this concept of family and what it means. It’s very humorous, and meaningful, and impactful.”
Right now, the group includes 11 women and a couple of guys. “We would love to have more men in the group,” says Benson. “I want to invite the men of central New Jersey to take the risk. My husband is a physicist, and he loves the group. It’s so different from what he usually does.”
CWW On Stage will perform on Tuesday, May 17, at the Princeton Senior Resource Center in the Suzanne Patterson Center, 45 Stockton Street, and on Tuesday, May 24, at the Robert Wood Johnson Center for Health and Wellness, 3100 Quakerbridge Road, Mercerville. The group is holding a workshop, “Seniors on Stage” on Saturday, June 11, at the Friends Center in Princeton. The ensemble is also working on a piece with high school and middle school students, using their same interview techniques.
As much as the members of the group are enjoying themselves and learning from Immerwahr and each other, it could be that their director is taking away much more than he is giving. “I have been incredibly stimulated and challenged and engaged by the way this group of artists has entered into the concept. They’re so dedicated and so honest and so engaged in the work, and committed to reflecting their community, and to making work that’s honest. And to getting it right. For me, the greatest experience has been watching them form a true ensemble. It’s very exciting,” says Immerwahr.
Lifelong Creativity Fest, Tuesday, May 17, 1 p.m., Suzanne Patterson Center, Monument Drive, 609-924-7108. CWW On Stage will perform a selection from its performance “About Family.” The Lifelong Creativity Fest is an afternoon celebration of the visual and prforming arts, including music, drama, and poetry, as well as a wine and cheese reception and a community art show.
Also, Senior Health and Fitness Day, Tuesday, May 24, 1 p.m., RWJ Hamilton Center for Health and Wellness, Quakerbridge Road, Hamilton, 609-631-6819. CWW On Stage will perform selections from “Not Just Surving. . . But Thriving,” which aims to answer the question “What is healthy aging?”
Also, Seniors on Stage Workshop, Saturday, June 11, 9:30 to noon, Friends Center Convocation Room, corner of Olden and Williams streets. Workshop run by Adam Immerwahr, director of CWW Onstage. No experience needed. Learn acting techniques that work in life as well as on stage. Pre-registration required. $30. Call or E-mail Janet Wolinetz at 609-921-1818 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Limited to 20.